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'Elizabeth' Writer Michael Hirst Talks Going from Royals to Raiders in His New Series 'Vikings'

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire February 27, 2013 at 1:22PM

Michael Hirst has spent a lot of time writing about royalty. As the screenwriter behind 1998's "Elizabeth" and its 2007 sequel "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," he provided Cate Blanchett with the role of the "Virgin Queen" that made her an international star. As the creator and showrunner for Showtime series "The Tudors," he detailed the political and bedroom escapades of Henry VIII, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, while in Starz drama "Camelot," he looked at the more fantastical lives of Merlin (Joseph Fiennes), King Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower) and other high-ranking figures of legend.
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'Vikings'
Jonathan Hession 'Vikings'

Actually, what happened, Lagertha refused to carry on living with Ragnar and his new wife, got divorced, went off and married another earl. When Ragnar’s kingdom was invaded she came back to help him and they defeated the raiders. She still refused to stay -- she went back to her earl, killed him and ruled instead. And it’s just a great true line, it’s wonderful. Unlike all those heroines now of Scandinavian drama series who all are psychotic, have deep flaws or are mentally deranged in some way, she seems to me to be perfectly normal -- except she can fight like hell. She has a very rock solid morality and her story is worth telling. She’s a fantastic character.

How did being the first scripted series for the History influence your approach to the show, in the sense of research or representations?

"We want to make a show about the Vikings, but we can’t show any sex or violence."

There’s an expectation, quite rightly, that these have something to do with historical research and reality, and indeed it does. It’s a drama, but it is based on my reading. We have a historical consultant, which is a good thing. Because this is network TV not cable, there are things you can’t show. It was rather funny when we got together with History and they made the point telling us what we couldn’t show. [laughs] "We want to make a show about the Vikings, but we can’t show any sex or violence." But of course you can, to some extent -- you have to be careful and you have to be creative.

Myself and the first director sat down and and said, "Okay, this is not a problem, this is a challenge," because we both felt the way a lot of these shows are going now on cable, there’s a hell of a lot of gratuitous sex and violence just because they can show it. The most important thing is the story. It’s still violent when it has to be, but it’s not "Spartacus," it’s not just people losing limbs in front of a green screen. Working with History did bring with it some issues, which I was delighted to address. It’s a very good partnership, and it worked out very well.

"Downton Abbey" aside, there seems to have been an interest in recent years in a more unromanticized, grittier portrayal of historical eras. Do you agree and if so, what you think might have shifted interest in that direction?

Vikings 5

That’s not actually what’s happening on British TV -- it’s more "Downton" stuff coming out, all '20s flappers and pseudo romanticism. The American obsession with "Downton" amuses me slightly because it’s such a fiction. I’ve always been questioned about my historical veracity and "Downton" just flies past when it’s completely made up. I think what’s actually happened, there’s been a revolution. A lot of really talented people have gravitated to TV, and so obviously they want to tell more real, grittier stories, they want to use the opportunities they have to tell the stories they want to tell.

We’ve probably got the best writers now working in TV, certainly got some great actors. I worked with some great directors on this. TV was always the secondary medium, it was like, well, the standards don’t matter too much because no one will really notice. TV drama, not always, but on the whole were pretty appalling and very secondary, too. No one expected it to be like watching a movie, that was the point. But I think when you start watching ‘Vikings’ it is like watching a movie -- you’re taken somewhere else. And visual effects have come on so much since. I remember, from "Elizabeth," it was very difficult even to get a crowd scene. And a lot of people now, with a lot of ambitions, are in TV making these amazing shows, pushing boundaries. It's a great time.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Interviews, Michael Hirst, Vikings, History Channel






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